Bathsheba Spooner

Available at all eBook Retailers, May 27, 2013.

Chapter 1

March, 1777

 Winter’s End

 

Bathsheba Ruggles Spooner stands over a bucket of dirty dishes, eyes gazing through her kitchen window onto the grizzled stalks of last year’s garden. Nothing green pokes through the patches of dark earth and tarnished gobs of snow. She has grown old as the malingering winter—body aches she never suffered before, fingers cracked with cold, her spirit shrunk and wizened. Old. Turned thirty-one while British officers pranced and preened in New York when they should have been finishing off the Yankee Army. How long do they expect her to wait?

She pours hot water into the bucket filled with yesterday’s dishes and turns to the window again, looking. Not for the damn British Army. She’s done with them. The sky looms low and heavy as a greasy pot lid over the winter-killed fields, fog rising from the road that is too muddy for travelers, or anyone to venture out. The house is adrift on noxious vapors, she and the baby its prisoners.

A whimper at her side distracts her. “Up Mama?” Bathshua’s little fists latch onto her apron, angel face straining upward with an unnerving intensity. The baby’s dark webby hair is a tangle of curls that defies brushing, and her tiny nose is encrusted with snot.

“I can’t pick you up now sweet lamb. Do you see these hands? Mama’s hands are all wet and soapy.” She lifts her hands from the wash bucket and flutters them, spraying droplets of water to make the baby laugh—but not this time. The little face puckers. “Poor little sneezy lamb, poor little one.” She scoops Bathshua up, carrying her to the kitchen rocker to nestle her in the crook of her arm.

“Bye baby bunting…” She sings the song’s verses over again until the words lose meaning. “To wrap the darling baby in….” Until she, herself, drifts into a dream of summer-ripe barley fields as the dishwater grows cold and pocky with congealed fat. She bolts upright in the chair and grabs for the baby, who, loose-limbed as a rag doll, slips to the floor.  Bathshua startles awake with a cry, dashing all hopes of a real nap.

Later she finds herself in the parlor and wonders what necessity propelled her there. A pull on her skirt recalls her to herself. She is standing by a front window without the least idea of what she meant to do in this cold room.

The tugging grows insistent. “Up?”

“Brrrrrr! Aren’t you cold, little girl?” But Bathshua won’t be amused. How long has the child been pulling at her dress? She stoops to lift her. “You know Mama is only encouraging baby behavior in a big girl of two.” So says her sister Martha, who luckily isn’t present to say it herself.

“It’s only that you’re such a little big girl.” She croons in the baby’s ear as she twirls her around the parlor. “Won’t you ever go to sleep sweet lamb, and give your Mama some peace?” Bathshua’s small face burrows moistly into her mother’s neck as if she could plant herself there. “No.” Her voice is muffled, insistent.

“Won’t you please, please be my good girl and go to sleep in the big bed? Mama will give you a sweet.”

Bathshua says nothing, out of coyness perhaps…or slowness. The last is an intrusion though familiar enough from hearing her husband say it so often.  Her own little one by name and image, the slowest of her children to speak. But she, herself, was slow to use words, and even now words will make her doubt her own desires with their slippery will to obscure and subdue. Making her doubt her wits, doubt her own perfect little baby. Making her believe him even knowing his belittling intent.

Now she remembers that she came into the parlor for the brass candlesticks, which she cannot forget to polish if he should return from Princeton this day. “Pray that he doesn’t come back today,” she says into the baby’s ear, then bends to kiss her tiny neck. It is so delicate a neck, heartbreaking in its miniature perfection.

Little Bathshua finally asleep, she builds and lights a fire in the parlor then draws a chair up to the west window to catch the day’s last light. A white linen cap for the baby lies folded on top of her workbasket, awaiting an embroidered border wrought in French silk thread. It is perhaps the last piece of white stitchery her failing eyesight will allow. As she works to thread her needle something beyond the window catches her eye, a movement at odds with the dead landscape.

Standing, she peers through the milky dusk but sees nothing. Ripples in the glass pane distort the darkening road as if viewed through tears. Nothing. See how her imagination will still turn antic after all these years, transforming some poor traveler—or no one at all—so that her heart will leap each time betraying her, tricking her back in time.

A nearly perfect picture: fields green and supple, catching the summer light in rippling waves clear to the distant woods, herself a small figure wading through thigh-high grass. She turns to assess the faint path behind her before disappearing into Nathaniel Ball’s hay barn, leaving an almost undisturbed view to anyone who might look southward from her father’s hill. Blinded, she feels her way along the rough wall to find the ladder. As she climbs it she believes she can hear him breathing below the murmur of a summer breeze in the grasses outside.

“Bathshua. Here.” A trickle of sunlight reveals him sitting naked on the horse blanket, chest and legs bright in contrast to his face and hands that are permanently darkened from the sun. His eyes are almost black, intent on her where she waits standing eye-level with him on the last rung of the ladder. It is amazing he should love her, vain and silly child that she knows herself to be. “Suppose it was your sister and not me?”

“Then I wouldn’t do this.” He stretches flat to grab her hand and pull her to him. As he shucks off layers of her clothing, she kisses the hollow of his neck, tasting the salty grit of hay dust and sweat. She leans into his caresses like a cat, trying to forget the news she brings that he won’t like. That her father is sending her to Judge Oliver’s mansion for the whole, terrible summer. To take her away from the man she loves, a poor farmer and unsuitable husband.

She plunks herself back down in her chair, picks up the cap, and searches for the needle, which has gone and likely slipped down a crack between the bloody floorboards. A jab in her finger reveals it is stuck in the cap, causing her to knock over the workbasket, scattering pins, thimble, thread, and buttons all over the room. Sucking her finger, she dares not look around for the cap yet, lest it be stained with blood and ruined, and she would be forced to hide it from her husband’s eyes because of the wasting of fine linen and silk. Throw it on the fire and herself as well, and be bloody done with it.

Not that it isn’t a seductive thought—she examines her finger and the bleeding has stopped—though the fire isn’t near big enough and it would hurt way too much to die by burning.

But there it is again. Something moving outside the window, someone—flesh and blood—a man’s head and chest emerging above the tufted hillocks of winter-killed grass at the foot of her pasture. It is too slender a figure to be Nathaniel Ball.

She stands to watch as he walks slowly along the road’s still-frozen margin to avoid the mud, a pack with a firearm strapped to his back. The gun marks him as a soldier though he isn’t British by his dress. As he draws closer she sees that he’s a mere boy, with smooth cheeks and dark hair, a stranger, though he’s hard to make out in the dusky light.

He takes the mild hill in front of the house slow as an old man. At this time of day he should surely be looking for a place to stay, but he passes by her window with his head bent, though the distance separating them is only a few feet.

She presses her forehead against the cold windowpane. As if her heart conjured an apparition out of mud and fog. But in the self-same moment born out of her languishing posture blooms pure disgust at such womanish drooping and sighing. Bloody blubbering sniveler!

She runs, skittering over sewing materials to yank open the front door, which sticks from lack of use. “Halloooooo,” she shouts to his receding back.

He stops and then turns, each a separate motion. She descends the two granite steps quickly, careless of the muddy road. “Will you have supper with the family?”

“I have no money.” He takes off his hat and his forehead is smooth and wide. His eyebrows arch like wings.

“You don’t need it. I’m not an innkeeper. Though my mother was. It was how she met my father, even if later she lamented having opened that day. Come inside to warm yourself.” She unlatches the gate, but he stands where he is in the evening air that feels damp and cold as a shroud.

“I’m sick with the influenza, from the army.” He turns his face away to cough. It is a familiar rattle.

“All the more reason to come inside now.” She extends her hand and wiggles her fingers at him. No point in asking which army. Even deathly ill he’s too wholesome to be anything but Massachusetts born.

“It’s nearly passed, but I don’t want to bring it into the house and spread it to the family.” His teeth chatter and his eyes look scalded.

“Come in out of the cold air this minute before you die of it!”

“Are you an angel?” He trudges after her, and she latches the gate behind them.

She laughs, tickled by the conceit until it strikes her that he’s probably out of his head with fever. Leading him through the kitchen door and to the fire, she takes his pack and gun as he stands warming himself. “Can you take off your coat by yourself? I’ll quick go down cellar for some rum.”

Humor appears in his eyes but goes no further as he begins with stiff, chapped fingers to undo his belt. She finds a pitcher and ducks down the cellar stairs, fearing at any moment he might topple into the fire. On her return he is still standing where she put him with his buttons undone. She pulls his coat off by the sleeves—undyed homespun, patched at the elbows and in other places. A poor man’s coat whose patches may well cover bullet holes. He is a soldier, and even if he belongs to the patriot army she owes him that respect. She guides him to the stool by the hearth, guessing he is no more than fifteen or sixteen, her own son Joshua with a few more years of growth. But poor Josh isn’t nearly so pretty, having too much Spooner in him.

She heats the rum with the poker and holds the tankard to his lips. He takes a swallow or two and then slips from the stool to the floor in a boneless heap. She hunkers down to lay her cheek by his nose; his breath with its acrid fever smell stirs the fine hairs of her skin. Abruptly she stands then kneels again to feel his forehead, which is very hot. But he still lives, and she has no one to help her get him into a bed but her husband’s man, John Hibbard, in the barn—a vicious dog a man will keep because of his own inclination to viciousness.

Hibbard follows her into the kitchen, grunts, and lifts the boy up by the shoulders carelessly as if he were already dead. “Get the legs.”

She does what he orders because she fears him, and it’s worse because he knows. His face is empty-eyed, with no human pity in it.

They bump the boy’s back on each stair step because she can’t lift him higher, and she’s exhausted by the time they lay him on the bed in the east chamber. The room is cold, with little natural light remaining in its one window. “We’ll have to take off his clothes. They’re soaked with sweat,” she says to Hibbard as he turns to leave the room.

“I can’t lift him by myself. Please help me.”

He stops, and in the gloom his eyes glitter from the folds of his face, cowing her, which is what he intends. Her fingers shake as she continues unbuttoning the boy’s woolen waistcoat. “Lift his shoulders so I can pull it off, please.”

Hibbard at last moves to shift the boy’s body as she pulls off his damp shirt. “Bring up plenty of wood for a fire. And I’m afraid you’ll have to go out to get Dr. King after you get the wood. I don’t dare to leave him, and I can’t leave the baby sleeping by herself. Elizabeth’s at Martha’s and so can’t mind the baby for me.” She takes in a long breath and can’t make herself meet his eyes but watches his big hands that hang below the grimy cuffs of his shirt. They open and then close; he says nothing nor does he move.

“If he dies, I’ll charge you with his murder before the constable.” She makes herself look at him. “The road’s poor to ride, and you’ll have to go by foot.” The boy begins to cough, and she turns to pull a blanket up over his chest.

“You expect I’ll die of it?” His voice is raw. She looks up but Hibbard is gone.

“No. I said that only to hurry him. He’s always hated me for no good reason, and now I’ve given him one.”

He closes his eyes, and in the cold chamber his breathing is loud and ragged. Influenza took her baby John. He was only a tiny infant, only three precious weeks before he was taken.

Hibbard returns with an armload of wood and stops short at seeing her face wet with tears. He throws the wood on the hearth and curses. Whore. He says the word like the hiss of a snake, loud enough for her to catch beneath the angry clatter of the logs. She would gladly kill him if she could.

She turns to see if the boy heard too, but his eyes are closed and his breath labored. Quick as that Hibbard is gone from the room, leaving her to make the fire.

Dr. King bleeds the boy and afterward, in the kitchen, he tells her that he would have died on the road if Hibbard hadn’t taken him in.

“Hibbard didn’t take him in. Did he tell you that? I was the one who took him in.” Her voice rises in protest at the expression on Dr. King’s face: dismissal as if she were a tiresome child claiming undue attention.

He reaches for his coat hung on a chair back. “See that you don’t neglect him for being a Continental. Poor boy. He’ll likely die anyway.”

She stares, struck dumb by the insult and turns away to ascend the back staircase, refusing to see him out. Dr. King is her husband’s drinking companion and has always hated her because of her family’s loyalty to the Crown. And too, her husband speaks badly of her when he’s drunk. As he does when he’s sober.

She lights a candle to look in on Bathshua who is burrowed beneath her goose-down cover sleeping deeply at last, allowing time to tend to the boy. She brings up a bucket of cold drinking water for the fever, and a pot of hot water to bathe him. As she washes his face and neck he tells her that his name is Ezra Ross and that he’s walked for over a fortnight from General Washington’s winter camp at New Jersey, going home to Ipswich and his family. His skin is smooth and downy, the work familiar as though he were her son.

“My brother Abner, behind you there, he died defending Fort Louisbourg.” His voice is matter-of-fact as he says this, and it takes her a moment to understand that he’s gone out of his head again. He struggles to rise from the depths of the tick, craning his neck to look around her. “Where’s he at?”

“Hush now.” She turns to look for herself. “I don’t see anything there. No one.” She presses him back onto the tick and steals a quick look over her shoulder again. Nothing is there that she can see, but who can say what visitor from the invisible world might be present and lurking beyond the firelight? If it is his brother’s shade, she wishes it would let her see it too.

“Do you have the letter?”

“What letter?” She retrieves a second washcloth from the bucket of cold water, squeezes it and drapes it over his brow.

“The letter from his Colonel says he died bravely. He gave his life for the fort, but the damn British, they gave it back to the Frogs. Isn’t it like them, though?”

He isn’t talking to her but to the thing behind her—if it is his brother come for him, she will do her damnedest to prevent it. Again she turns but sees nothing.

“Hush now, please rest.” She eases him back against the pillows and tucks the quilt around his shoulders and neck. “That war was a long, long time ago before you were even born.” Her father fought at Fort Louisbourg when they killed General Wolfe. She’d grown up with the painting of the dying General surrounded by his grieving officers, which hung in the place of honor over the sitting room fireplace at Hardwick. How she had loved General Wolfe’s handsome dying face and the beauty and nobility of the great man’s final agony at the end of his triumphant battle—the finest death a man could ask, her father often said. But then the wretched patriot scum rampaged through their home, stealing the painting and everything else of value.

She looks carefully into the room’s dark corners, feeling her neck hairs prickle. Her father was a Colonel at Fort Louisbourg, only later was he made General. And he told her he was the only one among the British officers who wrote the families of his fallen men, brave American boys who gave their lives for England in a fight that was not their own. She could ask Ezra Ross who his brother’s Colonel was, but she is certain she already knows. The coincidence, if it is that, is unnerving.

She dips a cup of cold well water and brings it to his mouth, but after a sip he pushes it away. Because his five brothers went in the service, he says, his mother forbade him to enlist and refused to give him her blessing. “If I die tonight she won’t forgive herself.”

“You won’t die—I just know you won’t. I’ll wash your face, neck, and arms if you like and then let you sleep.” The chamber has warmed some from the fire, and she pulls back the blankets and quilt enough to gently wash his face and neck with a warm tea towel.

“She said it broke her heart when I enlisted, but my sister Johanna said I should go and do what I have to do, no matter how harebrained a thing it is.”

“I would like your sister Johanna.”

“I’d of been drafted at sixteen anyway. If I had only seen my mother one more time.”

He knows Death is by him. She knows it too, death—the heart hollowness, aching for him, for her own tiny, perfect infant as though it is happening over again.  She pulls the covers up around his neck, unable to speak.

“I am prepared and not afraid.” His eyes are blurry but lucid, looking into hers as if she were the one needing comfort. She bends to gather him to her.

Cradling his infant body to her breast, so small her two hands encompass him. She rocks him all that night as he struggles for breath, everything of her willing him life, long after his small cheek grows cold on her own feverish face. His body too still, light as a leaf touched down and blown away. God is pitiless.

“May I have water?” The voice in her ear makes her start. She sets him back on his pillows and scoops up a cup of water from the well bucket. He holds the cup himself and drinks it down, watching her over its rim. She brushes back her hair with her hand and finds it has sprung loose around her face, and that she’s capless. Dr. King saw her like this and will say around Cooley’s she’s a wanton.

He hands the mug back to her. “You are much more beautiful than my mother, or my sister Johanna, who’s pretty enough. But you’re as beautiful as any woman I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty.” His voice is grave but stronger than it was; she works to suppress a smile.

“I’ll write to your mother and sister what you said, and when you get home they’ll make you plenty sorry for it.”

He makes as if to laugh at the joke but coughs anew, propelling her up to fuss with the quilt, tucking it around him again. If he’s going to die he should at the least be warm while he’s at it. She puts more wood on the fire and offers him rum, which he takes. After some time his eyelids droop and close. She sits very still, watching him as his breathing eases into sleep and the blankets over his chest as they rise and fall. He is only a stranger who happened into her safekeeping, and she can’t afford to care if he will die. Only care about him as she cares for all of God’s children—except for her father’s enemies, wriggling, dung-eating vermin that they are. If she were a man she’d call them out to duel and shoot every one so he could come back home where he belongs.

The motion of Ezra Ross’s breath is almost invisible; the only sounds in the still chamber his soft wheezing breath and the crackle of burning wood. She sits still and listens, attuned to the visitation she felt earlier, but it seems to have moved off.

She stands, her back sore from bending over him and then tiptoes to her own chamber to make sure little Bathshua is warmly covered. The chamber is pitch dark but for the bit of light from a sickle moon visible through her chamber window. She searches by feel through her linen chest for the fine English wool shawl given her as a wedding gift by her sister Mary and John Green.

Back in the boy’s chamber, she sees that the fire emits a feebler glow and builds it up with the remaining logs that Hibbard brought in. She wraps herself snugly in her shawl and listens to his breathing, softer and more even now in sleep. With nothing left to do for him, she settles into the chair by his bed and holds his hand so he won’t go to his death alone.

Sometime in the night a vision of Death’s face appears in the chamber doorway. It is withered and eaten by shadows, familiar. The face leers from the partly opened door at Ezra Ross, then turns and studies her as if entertained to find her, too.

 

*          *          *

 

The room’s small window reveals itself with first light. She stands and stretches, seeing her breath in the cold room as she moves toward the window. Beyond the glass’s fanciful ice tracery the eastern horizon glows palest pink. She presses her lips to the pane, exhaling warm breath to make a peephole. A flimsy blanket of frost obscures the road, unspoiled yet by traffic. She is conscious of herself dawdling at the chamber window and listens to the unnatural silence, shivering in the window’s draft. Slowly she turns to the bed, preparing herself for his corpse.

He is curled on his side with his back to her, blankets twisted around his body. The skin of his uncovered shoulder is cold as death, but her ear close to his mouth detects warmth, his breath.

Quickly she circles the bed to look at his face, innocent and boyish, his skin pink with life. She sinks to her knees in thanks. Death had been at the door, she saw it. “Please forgive him if it were not Thy will to save him, but my own doing. If it was, please forgive me as well.” She whispers the last part—suddenly made uneasy by her presumption—and abruptly stands.

Sleeping, he appears childlike with his fringe of brown lashes against the smooth curve of his cheek. She slips beneath the covers and fits his body to the curve of hers for warmth, though the light outside is growing brighter, birds are arguing, and she is late for chores. One of the cows has calved, and she’ll have Hibbard bring up milk from the barn to make a pudding. She’ll stop at the barn in any case, to tell him to bring up more wood for the fire. It seems like a dream that she was afraid of Hibbard—she can hardly remember it now. Ezra Ross. She’ll prepare good food to tempt his appetite.

A door creaks open in the hallway and booted footsteps proceed along the hall floor, drawing closer. She leaps up from the bed, brushes her rumpled clothing and smooths her hair. He must have returned in the night.

The chamber door is shut, yet she’s sure she left it open in order to listen for Bathshua. The footsteps stop by the closed door for a moment and then they pass on and down the front stairs.

She slips across the hall to her own chamber and finds Bathshua awake, sitting up among the bedclothes. The baby scrubs her eyes with her fists and then rubs her nose, sore pink from the cold.

“Mama?”

“Yes, sweet babe, it’s late. Hurry, get down from the bed and use the pot. Mama’s too busy to help now.” In her looking glass she notes flecks of goose down stuck to the serge of her wine-colored bodice, from Ezra Ross’s bed. The bits of feather don’t brush off but there’s no time, no time to change clothing. She pins on a cap to hide her unkempt hair.

“Will you get up now?” She turns to Bathshua who sits watching her from the unreachable center of the bed, her own fine hair a mess. “Hurry, so I can brush your hair before your father sees you.”

“No Mama,” Bathshua says, and gives her a winsome smile, raising her arms to be picked up. Bright sunlight makes a square on the rumpled bed cover beside her.

“He’s already in the kitchen expecting his breakfast.” Bathshua says nothing but reaches again with her arms, something imperious in the gesture. “You’ll get no breakfast if you won’t come down for it.” She is out on the stairway when Bathshua begins to wail with great in-drawn breaths, prompting a rush back to pluck her up and run down the back stairs.

She hurries to the kitchen with the baby on her hip, but a whiff of something foul smelling assails her. A heap of damp, dirtied clothing lies on the floor by the kitchen wash pot. His return undeniable, as if the stinking pile were him in the flesh.

At least Hibbard has kindled the kitchen fire, resuming his chores with the master back. She stops a moment by a kitchen window to admire the lacework of frost still bordering the windowpanes, beyond it the dooryard and road eastward. To New York. If she stole one of the horses she and the baby might reach her father in two days by pushing the horse straight through…only it would kill the horse and she has no money.  And yesterday’s churned mud is a chop of frozen ruts, so no one could ride out anyway.

She turns abruptly from the sight of it and sets Bathshua in her chair, pulling it up to the kitchen table. “After dinner we’ll take the cart to visit your Aunt Martha,” she says to cheer them both as she fills the kettle from the bucket of water Hibbard brought in, now that he is again acting the faithful hired man. She scrapes up a good pile of coals and hangs the kettle on its hook, then quickly peels and slices apples into the stew pot, putting out small pieces for the baby to eat.

“And Lizbet, too,” Bathshua says, through a mouthful of apple, her small face still mottled with fading pink blotches and eyelashes waxed into little points.

It is a moment before she recalls the promised trip to Martha’s house—more daydream than intention. “We’ll bring her back home to play with you as quick as we can.” She sweetens the pot of apples with molasses, sets it over the fire, and next mixes the cornbread batter. As her hands work the familiar tasks, she wonders if Ezra Ross will remember nothing when he wakes, or if he too had seen the face of Death at his door. The image casts a pall that lingers. He has been spared, but at what cost?

The kettle begins to steam as she fills the muffin molds with batter and places them in the bake oven. The kettle recalls her to the dirty pile of clothes and the need to get the snot-encrusted handkerchiefs and his filthy drawers to soak in the wash pot. “Eat your apples baby girl,” she says to little Bathshua, fussing for her to return to the table. She pours the kettle into her wash pot and scoops a glob of soap to follow. “I’ll be right there, I’m coming,” she croons as she picks the most heavily stained pieces from the stinking pile and drops them into the pot. Over the years she has learned to absent her thoughts during her most trying duties, though washing his clothes still turns her stomach.

“How do you suppose these clothes came to be so wet and so dirty?” she says in a sing-songy voice, but Bathshua is having none of it.

“Downnnnnn, Mama!”

“And some clothes even spoiled with black mold,” she sings out. But the baby is ominously quiet. Quickly she turns, and the sudden presence of her husband just behind her makes her jump, dropping the last of his shit-stained drawers.

“Lollygagging over laundry you can tend to at any time with breakfast so late?” His colorless hair sticks out from his head like a blown dandelion, eyes half shut and nose tipped up over a self-satisfied smirk. Smug as the Devil’s pet pig.

She refuses to acknowledge him. Bending to pick up the drawers, she drops them in the pot and steps over to her dish bucket to wash her hands. Even still she feels soiled all over.

“Not that it isn’t amusing to watch you attend to your wifely duties. For once.”

“I was awake nearly the whole night, nursing a sick soldier who came in from the road and would have died if I had not tended him. Dr. King said so. Ask him if you don’t believe me when you go to drinking at Cooley’s. That’s why breakfast is a little bit late.”

“I know all about the soldier.” He turns to Bathshua who has been watching them both with a solemn face. “At least my little daughter will give me a proper welcome when I’ve been gone a fortnight from home.” He lifts Bathshua, who stiffens in his arms but remains silent. “Why do you suppose it is,” he says, as if to the baby, “that your mother is unkempt as a common trull and all bedecked with goose down when she says she sat up all night nursing a poor and handsome young soldier?”

She smells the sudden stink of her fear and moves quickly to the bake oven to look in on the muffins, whose tops are slowly crusting over. Not yet ready, yet they send out a rich, homey aroma as cover. The chamber door was shut as his footsteps passed by it in the early morning, while she lay—only a few moments—to lend her warmth to the sleeping boy. She is sure the door was shut and latched too, though she’d left it open to listen for Bathshua in the night. Or she thought she left it open; she no longer knows if she did or not. The goose down on her bodice can be explained by saying that she lay down on the bed with Bathshua to rest for a bit in her own chamber, before coming down to prepare breakfast.

She turns to give him this excuse and sees that he is tickling Bathshua, acting as if the baby’s efforts to wiggle herself out of his hold were all in fun. He never will play with his children or attend to them, and she understands this show of affection—if it is that—is intended as a reproach. He appears to have forgotten her and his accusation too, though she doesn’t trust it for a minute. As if the lack of love between them is her fault, not his. She is disgusted to find herself making her case even yet—to no one but herself.

Bathshua starts to cry, causing him to tickle her all the harder.

She snatches the baby from him. “No, don’t cry, lamb. Only that your father keeps you from eating your breakfast.”

“Would we all might have our breakfast this morning.” He picks up the small pieces of apple Bathshua has left on the table and pops them into his mouth.

A cough from the back of the kitchen startles them both. The young soldier stands in the open doorway to the back stairs, fully dressed with his pack and firearm in hand. “Thank you for your hospitality,” he says. “I’m much better and will cut you wood or do some other work, to pay you for your kindness before I go.”

“Oh, you can’t leave, yet!” How long has he had been standing in the doorway, and what did he see? But there never is anything to see—no blood. “Mr. Ross, go back to bed until your strength returns. Please don’t think of leaving yet.” She hears herself pleading. His face has, in fact, regained some color and he looks better and in good spirits, enlivening the dark kitchen. “You may have forgotten how close to death you were last night.”

“So this is the young soldier.” Her husband goes to him and offers his hand. “Looks fine to me, due doubtless to my wife’s rescuing you from the specter of death. Or so she likes to represent it.”

The young man glances away at the mockery in his voice, but shakes his hand and repeats his thanks.

“Set another place for our guest in the sitting room.” Her husband guides Ezra Ross around and past her, his body between them as though to shield the boy. As they pass through the door she hears her husband ask for news of the war. Perhaps flattered by his interest, Ezra Ross’s answer is deferential.

She smells the apples scorching and quickly puts the baby in her chair to move the pot off the fire. She removes the muffin molds from the bake oven, grinds coffee beans, and then goes down to the cellar to find a cheese and her best fruit preserves. She serves the men in the sitting room where her husband has built a fire, an uncharacteristic charity on his part. They are in deep conversation about past battles and so hardly notice her when she brings them a tray laden with savory foods and tankards of small beer, which is just as well. Talk of the war only dignifies it.

After serving them, she sits at the kitchen table and eats her breakfast with Bathshua. She can hardly hold herself upright, weighted with sleeplessness and with the gravity of her everyday life reclaiming her. The spell of the whole strained night has worn to nothing by the light of day. Ezra Ross was given to her to save and send on his way.

She spreads strawberry jelly on pieces of cornbread and sets them on the table before little Bathshua, entertained by the baby’s grabbing the morsels and stuffing them all together into her mouth like a ground squirrel with bulging cheeks. If she’d for a minute felt … she doesn’t know what she felt. She is old for Heaven’s sake, thirty-one, a married woman for almost as long as she was a girl.

“Mama?” Bathshua has worked herself free from her high chair and is trying to pull herself up to climb into her mother’s lap. She lifts the baby, whose arms go immediately around her neck, clinging fiercely.

“Mama’s here. She won’t leave you,” she whispers, taking in her sweet baby scent overlaid with strawberry jam. If she somehow made a fool of herself it probably went unnoticed by the boy, who was mostly out of his head before his fever broke. She needn’t do anything about her husband’s accusations but keep silent and go about her business as she always has. Her life will close over this accident of Ezra Ross’s brief stay just as a stone disappears in a pool.

Sunlight inches across the tabletop, and Bathshua settles into her lap to pick at a piece of cornbread abandoned on her mother’s plate, squeezing it into a mess of crumbs.

The sitting room door opens upon Ezra Ross, causing color to rise to her face. “Your husband very kindly won’t allow me to do you chores, but I particularly wanted to thank you for taking me in before I go,” he says. “You saved my life, and I didn’t even know your given name before your husband said it. It suits you well.” He smiles, which causes her to smile.”

“You flatter me, but I like better that Bathsheba made her son king rather than her being spied on in her bath. My family calls me Bathshua, as it is written earlier in the bible.”

“I will remember it.” He takes his jacket from a hook by the kitchen door and shrugs it on. “I know you saved my life and thank you for it. I was going to die and was prepared.”

“You were going to die. The doctor said you would.” She wishes again that he would stay, only for his health’s sake. He isn’t at all as strong as he thinks he is and will tire quickly on the road. But the whole business makes her tired. “Your life is a gift beyond my doing. If it were mine though, I’d listen to the good advice your sister gave you about wasting it on soldiering. I speak as a mother,” she adds, and looks at him steadily the way a man looks at another man to bring home a point.

Bathshua sits up in her lap, taking him in, her eyes black and bright with interest.

“Hello, Pretty,” he says as he fastens his jacket. “You are a smart little forest creature. I can tell.” The baby gives a little trill of laughter, as if she understands exactly what he said.

“Get the boy some food for his journey,” her husband orders, from where he is lurking behind the boy’s shoulder. Made petulant no doubt by little Bathshua’s delight in the young soldier.

“Of course.” She stands and sets Bathshua down. “But someone who fought a year in the service isn’t a boy, no matter what his age or the foolishness of the cause.”

“It looks to me spring-like. I’ll just wait outdoors.” Ezra Ross hefts his pack on his shoulder, then picks up his gun and slips outside.

She puts together food left over from breakfast, and her husband takes the bundle out to him. He is gone, just like that. She hangs a teapot of water over the fire and clears breakfast remains from the sitting room table, pausing at her wash bucket to look out the window, following the empty road till it curves south.

 

Nathaniel cradles her to him, her back warm against his chest. “Why would your father take you to Boston, when he never wanted you to go before?” A breeze finds its way through the barn’s flimsy siding, making her shiver. 

“I don’t know.” But she does know. “He refuses to let me stay the summer in Hardwick. I’ve already begged him on my knees. It’s only three months with Judge Oliver’s family in Middleborough.” The names evoke separation already because of the Oliver family’s rank and distance from Hardwick, so much more than mere miles. Sharp pain racks her heart; not at all fanciful the way people speak carelessly of heartache.

“He wants you to take up with one of those Oliver swells.”

“See why I want your son in my belly before I go, so we can be married after harvest? We can still do it, make a son right this minute.” Outside the wind rustles in the grass and grasshoppers drone. She can hardly bear it, she loves him that much.

“No.” He drops his arms to shift her away from him. “Not before we marry, damn it Bathshua.”

“Damn it yourself.” He never sees his refusal for what it is: his will to bend her father who is unbendable. It is the one thing—his will—he loves more than her. “If you get me with child it would kill the whole argument, just like that.” But her heart isn’t in this old complaint as his hands smooth over her shoulders and back, followed by the rough fabric of his shirt scrubbing her for hay dust. The smell of his body and his hands’ tender care undo the little knot of righteousness in her breast, her last defense against impending sadness.

“He means to use this trip to make you give me up,” he says, and it frightens her that he’s made the possibility real by speaking it. “And you believe I could be so faithless, don’t you?” His expression tells her that he does believe it.

“You’re wrong, Nathaniel.” She speaks in a low voice, gathering dignity. “It will give me time to talk to him and make him understand about us. Poor man, he doesn’t know about real love, that it will outlast anything he can do. It can’t be taken from us, ever.”

“He’ll answer that those are the sentiments of a privileged young girl, who knows nothing about the hard work demanded by a farm.” He helps her tie her stays and she swallows back her tears. That he won’t even so much as lie to comfort her feels like betrayal.

 

“Mama, Mama! Look at me.” The voice rouses her, awakens her really as she stares out the window.

“See me pee?” Little Bathshua squats on the floor with her skirts hoisted as a puddle of urine runs along a warped floorboard toward her own booted feet. She jumps up, laughing, in search of her dishcloth. “You are a smart little forest animal, aren’t you? Good girl not to get your skirts all wet,” she says, wiping the puddle. She laughs again—though not lightly—at the recollection of her father’s dire prediction of her fate if she ever married Nathaniel Ball.